Popular culture, by definition, is of the moment–movies, television programs, music and other entertainment that reflects contemporary concerns or embraces current social preoccupations. Many examples–probably most–have limited staying power; even fewer can be shown to have influenced the development of the culture rather than simply reflecting it.
Star Trek is one of those; it continues to exert significant influence over the broader culture. (Disclosure: I’m a huge fan.)
The original series has been followed by several others incorporating creator Gene Roddenberry’s humane and very explicit moral themes celebrating the pursuit of knowledge, justice, and mutual understanding. Trek’s various iterations promote diverse, open and welcoming cultures populated by people committed to reason, tolerance and the common good.
An interesting article from the New York Times explored Jewish influences on the social vision that animates the Star Trek universe. it was prompted by an exhibit mounted by The Skirball Cultural Center, a Jewish museum in Los Angeles.
Many fans of the show are aware that Spock’s signature “live long and prosper” greeting, with its distinctive hand gesture, originated from a Hebrew blessing that Leonard Nimoy first glimpsed at an Orthodox Jewish synagogue as a boy and brought to the role.
The prominently displayed photo of that gesture linking Judaism to Star Trek culture helps account for what might seem to be a highly illogical bit of programming: the decision by the Skirball, a Jewish cultural center known mostly for its explorations of Jewish life and history, to bring in an exhibition devoted to one of television’s most celebrated sci-fi shows.
The Times pointed out that Jewish influence didn’t stop with the Vulcan blessing; according to one of the writers quoted in the article, Jewish values and traditions were often on the minds of the show’s writers as they dealt with issues of human behavior and morality.
“A lot of Jewish tradition — a lot of Jewish wisdom — is part of ‘Star Trek,’ and ‘Star Trek’ drew on a lot of things that were in the Old Testament and the Talmud,” Gerrold said in an interview. “Anyone who is very literate in Jewish tradition is going to recognize a lot of wisdom that ‘Star Trek’ encompassed.”…
Jessie Kornberg, the president of Skirball, said that the center had been drawn by the parallels between Judaism and the television show. “Nimoy’s Jewish identity contributed to a small moment which became a big theme,” she said. “We actually think the common values in the ‘Star Trek’ universe and Jewish belief are more powerful than that symbolism. That’s this idea of a more liberal, inclusive people, where ‘other’ and ‘difference’ is an embraced strength as opposed to a divisive weakness.”
The exhibition explored the outsized influence of the Star Trek vision on American culture. As one of the individuals quoted in the article put it, “‘Star Trek’ has endured and inspired people because of the optimistic future it presents,” and especially the moral vision it promotes. Brooks Peck, who helped put the original exhibition together, observed that a Star Trek exhibit at a Jewish museum wasn’t as far-fetched as it first seemed.
“Skirball faced a bit of a challenge in trying to explain to its audience how ‘Star Trek’ fit in with what they do,” he said. “Happily it completely worked out. I had always hoped that Skirball could take it. Skirball’s values as an institution so align with the values of ‘Star Trek’ and the ‘Star Trek’ community.”
The operative word is values. Star Trek’s influence is a direct result of its coherent and appealing value structure. Those values were influenced by Judaism, but they are also congruent with the message of other non-fundamentalist religions and non-theistic philosophies: commitment to an open and welcoming society, a respect for intellect, science and truth, and a fierce advocacy of social justice and the common good.
The crews that populate the Enterprise and other Star Trek vessels are visual representations of the worst nightmares of the Hoosier culture warriors I wrote about yesterday, and of the retrograde throwbacks who attacked the U.S. Capitol. They are filled not just with diverse humans, but also diverse species, working together with civility and mutual respect in a society that places an especially high value on the ongoing search for knowledge and exploration.
Americans have a choice. We can emulate the ignorance and disordered bigotries of people like Donald Trump, or we can aim for the enlightenment values of Star Trek characters like Jean Luc Picard.
We can join the Neanderthals who are resentful of “others” and terrified of being “replaced”— or we can choose the humane and affirming values that animate Star Trek, humanist philosophy, and many liberal religions.
Values that will help us Live Long and Prosper.